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The 'accidental' Southern Baptist becomes its advocate

 

Jim Burton

Southwest Atlanta Baptist Association Associational Missionary Bernard Miller addresses church planters and strategists at Family Life Missionary Baptist Church.

MORROW — Bernard Miller entered Southern Baptist life by accident about 30 years ago. Today, he has become one of its greatest advocates.

As a pastor in Griffin, he attended a local Sunday school workshop. Having been a pastor since he was 18 years old, Miller recalled that the training was great.

“I need this,” Miller concluded. “They (other churches) get it in their association all the time. I want to be part of something like that.

“I had no idea it was Southern Baptist. I joined because I wanted to do Sunday school well.”

Miller soon led his church, Zion Baptist Church of Hampton, to become the first black church in Flint River Baptist Association. That’s when the problems started.

“It was more enlightening than discouraging,” Miller recalled. “Some churches said they weren’t going to be in an association with a black church. I’ve been through all that in my years as a Southern Baptist.”

Miller chose to be proactive. He created a Black Church Relations Committee at Flint River Association and began encouraging other African-American churches to join the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Later, he founded a statewide fellowship of African-American Southern Baptist churches. In 1995, Miller baptized his son in Atlanta at the annual national convention. That year was Southern Baptists’ Sesquicentennial, which emphasized racial reconciliation.

Through the years, more African-American Georgia churches affiliated with the SBC, and the pastors of those churches, often met for fellowship. From one of those meetings the idea emerged to form what today is Southwest Atlanta Baptist Association (SABA). Miller became the point man, and he issued a challenge.

Jim Burton

Southwest Atlanta Baptist Association Associational Missionary Bernard Miller regularly trains church planters and pastors concerning Southern Baptist polity.

“If you guys are going to stay [affiliated with] Southern Baptists, you need to do something,” Miller said to his peers. “You are in southwest Atlanta, and your area is dying.”

Retired NAMB missionary and church planter Robert Wilson helped Miller with the formation of SABA.

“He saw the value of us developing an association that identified with the urban environment and could pull together the urban churches that were on the fringes, not really involved in anybody’s association,” Wilson said.

Miller had learned about the Southern Baptist cooperative missions method as best exemplified by the Cooperative Program (CP). As Wilson noted, Miller knew how to articulate Southern Baptist distinctives to African-American pastors. He also knew that historically, Baptist cooperation began locally in associations with defined geographic boundaries.

“We started out with an emphasis in southwest Atlanta,” said Miller, who serves as the SABA’s first associational missionary while pastoring The Church at Griffin. “But as we began to compile the churches and continued the last two years, we really don’t have any boundaries. It’s an affinity association in one sense, but it’s not in another.”

Today, the 57 member churches stretch from Conyers to Douglasville, and as far south as Jackson. The association has one Anglo church and a Korean church.

“It’s not a traditional association,” Miller said.

Nor are Miller’s methods, particularly when promoting CP. He knows that African-Americans are emotional givers. Traditionally, African-American Baptists have not been emotionally attached to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, or CP. So he teaches SABA churches how to personalize missions giving.

“I have encouraged churches to name the [annual mission] offerings after one of the senior citizens within their church,” Miller said. Once collected, the churches designate that money for either the International Mission Board (IMB) or the North American Mission Board (NAMB). “They will give, but they have to be attached to [the offering cause].”

Teaching CP is a different challenge, Miller said, and he emphasizes it every day.

“I’m still explaining it to them,” he said. “They are fascinated by it. They had never heard of it.

“The more they come together, the more they see how much we can do together. Cooperation is being defined on the association level, and it’s growing into the bigger Cooperative Program.”

That cooperation has already grown as local pastors and their churches learn about the appointment of African-American career missionaries by IMB and NAMB.

“They never knew any of this existed,” Miller said. “In other associations, it was not brought up that there were African-American missionaries. We didn’t know.”

To close that knowledge gap, Miller aims to establish mission education in each SABA church. Meanwhile, he said the CP giving among the 15 founding SABA churches is trending upward. However, the percentage rates of giving are low now, Miller admitted.

“Give us five years and then come back and see what has happened,” Miller said. He anticipates that CP giving will be high enough to qualify some churches to have members appointed to SBC and GBC boards and agencies.

And when that happens, it won’t be by accident.

 

Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming and the bivocational pastor of Suwanee International Fellowship in Suwanee.